Jewish World Review August 28, 2003 / 30 Menachem-Av, 5763

Mike Barnicle

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He's off to college & I'm in the dumps | It's been on the horizon for a long time. It's been marked on the kitchen calendar since late last winter. It hasn't exactly been a family secret, and it sure isn't a surprise, but I am still stunned by my reaction to the fact that our oldest boy is going to college, will be out of the house, won't be upstairs in his room in the mornings or at the ballpark with me at night.

For the past weeks, I spent half the time in a melancholy daze and the other half flatout depressed by the realization that geography and growth have disrupted a familiar flow that's stretched across years. And he's not even the first to go through the door.

He's got three older sisters. But when each of them left - while momentarily saddened by their departure - I didn't look at it as if I had lost a daughter. I figured I'd gained a bathroom.

Obviously, I've spent some time thinking about this phenomenon, maybe too much. If you are of a certain age and a certain generation, maybe you're a little like me, with very little memory of either parent being consistently present at any athletic event you participated in during school, so you spend an enormous amount of time with your own kids today.

In my case, it wasn't because my mother and father didn't care or were neglectful. They were always working, especially my poor dad. He'd leave before I got up and returned in time for supper. He'd work whenever he could because we needed the money.

It was an era in this country when kids didn't have play dates and parents never worried about a boy or girl walking down the block or riding a bike across town to meet a friend. There were very few organized events. Depending on the season, all anyone needed was a ball or a hockey stick and someplace to play.

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Today, the car is the community center. And very few kids - especially in the suburbs - do anything without someone first arranging a time and a place. They are driven everywhere by parents who are often driven themselves, setting unreasonable goals and surrounding their children with the best of intentions, impossible expectations and coaches for every effort, athletic or academic. The subject doesn't matter. How to hit? How to improve on the SAT? Call this number. See this person.

And I am thinking about all of this as I watch my oldest boy pack. My wife keeps reminding me that he's not leaving forever, that he'll be back for Thanksgiving, that we have three more terrific kids still at home. I know this, believe it and, despite that reality, I am an emotional basket case.

This one, the guy about to become a freshman, is 19. He has a brother only 14 months younger, a sister 15 years old and another brother, 11. As he fills the car with gear, I somehow see them all in the back seat; they're still 9 or 10, and in my mind we are always heading out to a rink or a field at dawn or dusk. I hear them too; the laughter, the discussions with their pals as I drive along, in silence, listening, eavesdropping actually, on their lives and dreams and various fears. It was as if I was invisible to them, just driving. They talked a lot and I learned by keeping quiet. And I want to freeze that moment forever.

But I can't. Nobody can.

I go upstairs, pack a computer, show him how to use a washing machine and knot a tie. The car is in the driveway. It's nearly time to hit the road. There are reports of more violence in Iraq and Israel, and the daily dangers that surround all of us gnaw at me. I wonder what peril the world will be serving up for him and his brothers and sisters. I think of the kids who are his age who have shipped out for Baghdad and Liberia and Bosnia, a sea bag over their shoulder, pride and fear married in their parents' hearts. Thinking about it is not helpful to my frame of my mind. I know I am a wimp.

I take a few things from the trunk to create space for his stuff. I bring them into a garage, where I pick up an old 22-ounce aluminum bat from the floor and it reminds me of an afternoon nine years ago when he and his brother were on a team that won a summer league championship. They were wild with excitement.

He is a lucky young guy. He's worked hard and been presented with terrific opportunity. His great life is still in the early innings. He's merely going to college, a voyage that's been made millions of times by millions of others through the generations.

I understand all of it. I recognize my weakness, my emotional overreaction. I've had it before and, no doubt, will endure it again because the passage of children into adulthood arrives so quickly, leaving parents to pretend that the long trip to a new rung on life's ladder is no big deal. But it is.

Mike Barnicle is a columnist for the New York Daily News. Comment by clicking here.


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